File photo: Newspress

London - Ministers have created a public health crisis by “blindly” promoting diesel cars, a top Government adviser said on Tuesday.

Professor Frank Kelly, chair of the Department of Health’s committee on air pollution, said successive governments have taken the “wrong route” for decades by encouraging drivers to switch from petrol.

He said diesel engines – championed since the 1970s because they were thought to emit fewer greenhouse gases – could be responsible for more than 7000 deaths a year in Britain.

Diesel now fuels more than half of UK-registered cars, up from 14 percent in 2000. They generate far less carbon dioxide than petrol vehicles, so have been favoured in the tax system.

But in recent years scientists realised diesel produces more particles and nitrogen oxides that can cause a variety of long-term health problems.

While catalytic converters have rapidly improved in petrol cars, advances have been slower in diesel until very recently. The toxic fumes pumped out by diesel cars were behind the smog which blanketed Britain at the beginning of April.

Professor Kelly, of King’s College London, blamed the diesel boom on the panic of the 1970s fuel crisis and the ‘climate change agenda’ which followed, adding: “We have had a vast penetration of diesel vehicles into the transport sector. Diesel drives all our buses, drives all our taxis and drives one in two of the cars on the road.”

One of the reasons for its soaring popularity has been tax incentives. Road tax is based on carbon dioxide emissions, meaning petrol drivers pay more. But Professor Kelly said the climatic benefits of diesel engines had been overemphasised.

Calling for all diesel cars older than five years to be banned in cities, he said: “Clearly they do emit a lot more particulate matter from their exhausts than the petrol equivalent. And one of the technological advances has actually been the exhaust system generating nitrogen dioxide to burn the particulates off.

“We’ve walked somewhat blindly into the situation where a modern diesel vehicle actually emits a lot of nitrogen dioxide, which was a pollutant we were really trying to deal with.”

Around 29 000 deaths a year are linked to air pollution in Britain – and Professor Kelly said roughly 25 percent could be attributed to diesel emissions.

Dr Jeremy Langrish, of Edinburgh University, said air pollution causes strokes, asthma and heart failure.

He added that it is “difficult not to draw a correlation with the similar effects that we see with cigarette smoke, which we all recognise are bad for us.”